Monday, December 18, 2006

The New York Times

December 18, 2006

Fired Editor’s Remarks Said to Have Provoked Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch personally ordered the dismissal of Judith Regan, the publisher of a widely criticized O. J. Simpson book, after he heard reports of a heated conversation Ms. Regan had with a company lawyer on Friday that included comments that were deemed anti-Semitic, according to two people familiar with the News Corporation’s account of the firing.

Mark Jackson, a lawyer with HarperCollins, a division of the News Corporation that includes Ms. Regan’s imprint, reported the alleged comments from a phone conversation with Ms. Regan to Jane Friedman, HarperCollins’s president and chief executive.

“And then Jane called Rupert and Rupert said he won’t tolerate that kind of behavior,” said one of the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Despite the success Ms. Regan brought Mr. Murdoch’s publishing business since he established her imprint in 1994, their relationship had soured in recent weeks as she became involved in a controversy involving the Simpson book and companion television special she had championed.

After some Fox affiliates declined to broadcast the special, the company pulled the project, which featured Mr. Simpson hypothesizing about how he would have murdered his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald L. Goldman.

“You don’t do this in a perfect world because she makes a lot of money,” the person said of Ms. Regan’s dismissal, adding that Mr. Murdoch did not put the blame for the Simpson controversy solely on Ms. Regan.

Several efforts to reach Ms. Regan since her dismissal, including new attempts since the accusations of anti-Semitism surfaced, were unsuccessful.

A News Corporation spokesman declined to comment.

Mr. Murdoch, who had also approved the Simpson project, has not spoken to Ms. Regan since before the imbroglio it provoked but authorized Ms. Friedman to dismiss her, saying her slurs were the final straw after other recent episodes of what were deemed improper behavior, according to one of the people familiar with the News Corporation’s account.

Ms. Regan’s previous successes at the company seemed in sync with Mr. Murdoch’s penchant for pushing the boundaries of public taste and shaking up the media establishment.

The conversation with Mr. Jackson on Friday afternoon was described by sources as heated and confrontational, even for the famously forceful Ms. Regan. Ms. Regan’s alleged comments, which came in the midst of a tense conversation in which she berated Mr. Jackson, were directed at him and Ms. Friedman, who are Jewish, as well as toward other Jews, one of the sources said.

That source would not say specifically what Ms. Regan is alleged to have said, but characterized the comments as offensive and inappropriate, but not a hateful tirade. Still, the source said, it was enough to prompt Mr. Murdoch to dismiss her.

Ms. Friedman, known to have had a testy relationship with Ms. Regan, called Mr. Murdoch in the late afternoon in New York to discuss Ms. Regan’s behavior just as he was preparing to play host to the News Corporation’s annual holiday party for employees from across the company’s subsidiaries, which include the Fox television network, Fox News Channel, The New York Post, the 20th Century Fox film studio and the Web site

Later that day, at the ReganBooks offices on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, a stunned Ms. Regan was confronted by security guards who arrived with boxes and ordered her to leave, according to an account by a HarperCollins executive that was confirmed by another person familiar with the situation.

“This came completely out of the blue,” one executive said. “She was completely taken by surprise.”

It was an abrupt decision that ended a tumultuous few weeks for Ms. Regan. She had publicly defended herself from what she called the “backstabbers at HarperCollins” during the taping of her Sirius Satellite Radio show on Thursday, according to the industry blog GalleyCat. And within the company, she had become convinced that there were “people trying to take her down,” said a person familiar with the situation.

On Saturday, HarperCollins released a statement announcing that the Regan imprint would continue under Cal Morgan, Ms. Regan’s longtime editorial director.

Ms. Regan was known for her sharp instincts and even sharper elbows, attributes that had served her well in her ascent from cub reporter at The National Enquirer to publisher of her own imprint under HarperCollins.

Although her empire was built on celebrity tell-alls like Drew Barrymore’s “Little Girl Lost” and by bringing the porn star Jenna Jameson and the professional wrestler Mick Foley to the best-seller lists, Ms. Regan also published several highly respected books, including “The Zero” by Jess Walter, a National Book Award finalist this year. She also published political books by writers like Arianna Huffington and Peggy Noonan.

Last year, Mr. Murdoch allowed Ms. Regan to move her operations to Los Angeles, part of a strategy to build synergy between the publishing world and Hollywood. And it seemed to be working well, until the recent Simpson fiasco and a subsequent, though lesser, controversy over a novel about Mickey Mantle that purported to tell tales of drunkenness and sexual promiscuity in the late Yankee slugger’s own voice.

At the heart of the problem, though, was what many executives said was a tense relationship between Ms. Regan and Ms. Friedman, her boss.

“They always had a difficult relationship,” said one executive at a rival publishing house. “I don’t think Jane was ever happy with Judith. You have two very considerable egos.”

While Ms. Regan was rapidly losing credibility over the Simpson book, Ms. Friedman was enjoying a particularly bright moment in the spotlight. She had stayed silent during the Simpson controversy, never speaking to the press.

Last week, Ms. Friedman was named the Publishers Weekly Person of the Year, an honor within the industry. In the article about the award, Ms. Friedman was praised for managing to “distance the company from the book without openly confronting one of her publishers.”

Longtime publishing executives traded in speculation about Ms. Regan’s fate over the weekend, dismissing the idea that there was another company that would give her as much creative and financial autonomy as the News Corporation did.

“I think right this minute people are saying, She’s a pariah and we don’t want her,” said Sara Nelson, the editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. “But I’ve seen enough of publishing to say that that will change.”

Some thought Ms. Regan might opt for Hollywood, her home of less than two years.

“She’ll certainly have another life in entertainment,” said Laurence J. Kirshbaum, a literary agent and the former head of the Time Warner Book Group. “I think she will rise from these ashes and find another place.”

Regan was fired after slur, News Corp. says

By Josh Getlin
Times Staff Writer

December 19, 2006

NEW YORK — Media giant News Corp. took the unusual step Monday of releasing notes of a conversation between one of its attorneys and former book publisher Judith Regan to show that she made anti-Semitic remarks that led to her firing.

Regan, meanwhile, hired Hollywood attorney Bert Fields to deny the allegations and vigorously contest her dismissal. Fields said the firing was the result of a long-running feud between Regan and her boss, Chief Executive Jane Friedman of HarperCollins, a News Corp. unit.

In its account of the conversation between Regan and HarperCollins attorney Mark Jackson, News Corp. said Regan had declared that Friedman and Executive Editor David Hirshey, along with literary agent Esther Newberg, "constitute a Jewish cabal against her."

Regan also complained, according to the account, that Friedman had not given her enough support during the recent controversy over the aborted O.J. Simpson book and TV deal she had promoted, saying: "Of all people, the Jews should know about ganging up, finding common enemies and telling the big lie."

Regan was fired Friday, shortly after a phone call with the HarperCollins attorney to discuss a forthcoming "fictional biography" of the late baseball great Mickey Mantle, which had been drawing negative publicity for its salacious content.

Fields said Regan had indeed complained about a "cabal" formed against her within the company during the conversation. But he denied that she used the phrase "Jewish cabal."

"There's a big difference between those two statements," he added, "and we will demonstrate that in court." As for the other comment, Fields said, "I'm Jewish, and that statement to me seems in no way anti-Semitic."

Regan's rift with News Corp was sparked by reports that she had paid Simpson $3.5 million for a book and television deal. The book, "If I Did It," was billed as a hypothetical account of how the former football star might have carried out the 1994 slayings of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald L. Goldman. The TV project, a two-hour interview with Simpson conducted by Regan, was to have aired on Fox.

News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch bowed to growing public protest and terminated the project after several television affiliates said they would not broadcast the program.

Fields, who said he had had a long business relationship and friendship with Regan, described her as "very angry and disappointed" about the termination and "the scurrilous charge" of making anti-Semitic comments, calling it "an attempt to smear her."

He said that her firing, which HarperCollins called "for cause," was a breach of her contract. "She has performed brilliantly for this company. She's brought in a great deal of money and she'll be suing for every penny that's coming to her."

Efforts to reach Friedman and Jackson for comment were unsuccessful.

Fields offered only a few details when asked for Regan's version of the phone call with Jackson, which took place with Regan in Century City and Jackson in New York.

He said, "Ms. Regan wanted certain records, and he wasn't willing to give them to her." Fields added that the documents Regan sought "are records of complaints that Ms. Regan made. She wanted to have copies of memos that have been written, and Mr. Jackson refused to give her those."

The attorney declined to discuss how much money Regan would seek in her anticipated lawsuit.

The real reason for the termination, Fields suggested, was that Friedman was looking for a reason to have Regan fired. The two have clashed over some of the books Regan has promoted.

"Long-standing friction is not a reason for throwing somebody out of a job that she has performed brilliantly," Fields said. Regan "has brought a great deal of money to this company, and Ms. Friedman was all too happy to take all the money from these books. Now, she has nominated herself to be the taste police and get rid of someone she doesn't like."

At least one author who has worked with Regan came to her defense, expressing shock that she had been summarily dismissed. "I can't believe she would ever say anything like that," novelist Jess Walter said of the anti-Semitic charge.

But Walter, whose novel "The Zero" was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award for fiction, conceded that Regan's hard-charging style was likely to get her in trouble with higher-ups one day. "As someone who ran her own imprint, Judith always found herself in all sorts of conflicts, and she thrived in seeing herself as going against the flow."

Meanwhile, publishing industry insiders were speculating about Regan's next move and whether she would remain in Los Angeles. In her weekly column, Publishers Weekly Editor Sara Nelson wrote that she doubted "we've heard the last of Judith Regan," speculating that she will land at a TV network, movie studio or another publishing house.

Others doubted a quick return to publishing, though. "Right now she's pretty radioactive for the book world," said an executive at a large publisher, speaking anonymously. "My guess is that she's not going to be linking up with a major house in the short run. But in the long run she could."

Both Walter, who spoke with Regan on Sunday, and Fields said the former publisher had not decided her next professional move. Nor whether she will remain in Los Angeles, they said.

"My guess is she's going to take some time off," Walter said. "She has a lot of decisions ahead of her. If she goes back into publishing, I'd expect her to do something small. She wants to break free from how publishing works, to be more nimble and to produce books faster based on news as it breaks."